Call it fate, call it divine will, call it whatever you fancy; there were strange forces at work in the Stade Lescure on European Cup final day last January. Brive, the reigning champions and overwhelming favourites, possessed all the guns and all the bullets: fierce tight forwards, a dynamic back row, international half-backs, a pair of Linford Christies on the wings and the best goal-kicker in Europe. More importantly still, they were on familiar soil. It would take something a good deal more potent than the most vulnerable Bath side in recent memory to deny the Frenchmen a return visit to the summit of club rugby's Parnassus.
Or so we thought. Bath crossed the Channel with some distinctly shop- soiled personnel - Jon Callard was summoned from the back end of beyond to kick whatever goals might present themselves, while Jeremy Guscott was playing only his second serious game in seven months - but during a week of intensive soul-searching on the training pitch, they somehow cornered the market in the intangibles of big-time sport: belief, spirit, desire, a collective willingness to shed every last bead of sweat, every last drop of blood, in pursuit of their ultimate prize. And in the end, those uncoachable qualities carried the day.
It made for an unforgettable spectacle, enhanced by a surge of noise from 6,000 travelling Recreation Grounders as they slowly cottoned on to the fact that their team were contenders rather than cannon-fodder. From the depths of an unpropitious opening 40 minutes, during which Olivier Magne and Sebastien Carrat threatened breakaway tries and Christophe Lamaison looked capable of kicking penalties from anywhere inside his own half as well as the opposition's, Callard began to register a presence on the scoreboard. He would eventually claim all 19 Bath points, including the only try of the match and a late penalty that left the travelling supporters in need of a communal change of underwear.
In a sense, Brive handed Bath the trophy on a silver platter; Philippe Carbonneau, that arch-pragmatist of a scrum-half, showed a hitherto unsuspected streak of tactical naivete in ignoring the brilliance of his own backs and attempting to batter his enemy into submission. Given that Bath had little going for them apart from the stomach for a fight, the French game plan was a nonsense. When, deep in injury time, Lamaison's nerve finally failed him - the centre miscued an awkward but perfectly kickable penalty from the left touchline - the folly of the champions' approach was laid bare for all to see. Except that few in the stadium were in much of a condition to see anything; there were too many tears - French tears of frustration and bewilderment, West Country tears of relief and unrestrained joy - for that. And as the piercing emotion of that sunlit winter's afternoon in France began to subside, the moral of the piece was obvious. International rugby may generate most of the money, but it will never be the whole of trhe game.Reuse content